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In this short tribute to Mario Perniola, Zhou Xian remembers his friendship with the Italian aesthetician. Zhou, one of the most prominent art theorists in China, discusses his friendship with Perniola and the significance of their relationship both at a personal and intellectual level. After describing in a touching way their first encounter in Rome, which started in Perniola’s studio, Zhou celebrates the innovative character of Perniola’s aesthetic theorizing, and in particular his interest in Chinese contemporary aesthetics.

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Note della redazione

The original version of the article was published in “China Reading Weekly” (January 31, 2018). Liu Jinghan, Shang Enjie, and Shi Ge translated the article from Chinese into English.

Testo integrale

1Few days after New Year’s Day, my Italian colleague Andrea Baldini sent me a message. “I’ve just read that Mario Perniola passed away. I know that you were good friends. I’m sorry for your loss.” Upon hearing this news, I was struck with a deep sadness. Some people never make an impression on you, even if you see them every single day. Others, on the contrary, become unforgettable presences in one’s journey through life just after a single meeting. To me, Mario was such a treasured person.

2It took us a long time before we actually met: life seemed always to get in the way. Roughly fifteen years ago, after we got in touch via email, Mario and I decided to schedule a meeting in Rome. However, when I was getting reading to travel to Italy, Mario sent me an email: all of a sudden, he fell ill while in Brazil for a vacation and had to be hospitalized. We couldn’t do much but canceling our meeting.

3In 2004, I was a visiting Professor in France. Mario invited me to Rome, again. He mentioned that flying from France to Rome took a short time, just about 2 hours. It was much easier – he added – than flying for 10 or so hours as it takes to get from China to Europe: I was so glad to be able to avoid that suffering! Later that year, I flied to the Rome airport, where Mario had sent one of his students to pick me up. When I arrived at the hotel, Mario was already there, waiting for me in the lobby. It was the first time we met in person. And yet, our presence felt so familiar to one another, like we were old friends. With his typical promptness, Mario told me: “Let’s have a nice lunch, first. Then I will show you around, and let you discover the real Rome.”

4Among all the distinguished European and American scholars that I have met and came to know during my life, Mario certainly occupies a very special place. He was different from those who pose as humble individuals – as he genuinely was – just to disguise their arrogance.

5Mario was a European thinker whose sensibility and views were close to China. In the preface to the Chinese translation of Ritual Thinking: Sexuality, Death, World, Mario candidly admits:

  • 2 Perniola (2006: 1).

Unfortunately, until very recently, there were very few good sources that could allow me to familiarize with Chinese aesthetics and philosophy. Nonetheless, I have always had a strong feeling that there is unity between Chinese rich traditions and my work. And after I had finally the chance to appreciate some works from Chinese aestheticians, I must admit that some of their thoughts deeply touched me.2

6Few years ago, Mario confessed me that he was working on a monograph dealing with contemporary aesthetics from a global perspective. His intention was to incorporate Chinese contemporary aesthetics within his research. What he told me and his passion for this topic really impressed and moved me. I do believe, in effect, that his project was a very challenging one, of the utmost complexity even for a philosopher who had a strong command of the history of Western aesthetics, like he had. After he started to do research for this book, he asked for my help in collecting English publications discussing issues and themes central to Chinese contemporary aesthetics. It was not easy task, indeed.

7After our first lunch, Mario guided me through the discovery of the real Rome. We roamed the little streets and alleys that foreign tourists usually ignore. There, we walked through squares and quiet roads filled with local residents dressed in pure Italian style. Then, he took me to a small café, which looked rather unremarkable. Customers were standing at the bar, quickly drinking their espressos. As soon as we left the place, Mario told me – with pride – that there they were making the best espresso in town. To tell the truth, I was a bit surprised in hearing that: I wasn’t sure how the best coffee in Rome was supposed to taste.

8Soon after, he took me to a bookstore, where he picked up a copy of two of his books in aesthetics. He signed each copy, and gave them to me as a gift. As we were walking through the old Rome, he told me stories about the streets and edifices that we were passing by. Having him as a guide was a far better experience that any Lonely Planet could ever afford. We reached an old building: Mario stopped and took out of his pocket a key, which he used to open the door. We had just arrived at his studio.

9The studio was not big: only two rooms. In the first one, there was a bookcase with a large collection of academic books. The other one, a bit smaller, had a small bed in it. I imagine that Mario used it to rest in between his writing sessions. His studio was small but lovely, of a distinct Italian elegance. If Mario was not working at his office at the University of Rome, he was probably there reading and writing. Having a studio separated from his house was probably a practical choice, possibly also a strategy for separating his academic and family life. Like Heidegger’s over-romanticized log cabin, people over interpreted Mario’s choice as some sort of urban equivalent to a «poetic dwelling» in the wilderness. However, the truth is that, I believe, he just tried to escape from worldly distractions and to find a quiet space where to think. While residing in Rome, a noisy and ancient city, Mario lived from an intellectual point of view in another place, which was also where he gave birth to some of his most important works.

  • 3 Perniola (2013).

10Among the many academic books in his bookcase, many were in Italian, German, and French. The influence of German and French aesthetics on continental thinkers is profound, whereas Chinese aesthetics is largely ignored. Though in the West Chinese thought is usually discussed only in specialized circles, it seems to me that Chinese culture and philosophy could have a much more important and influential role. Going in the direction of a global theory, Chinese aesthetics could have something to say. Given this academic and cultural landscape, Mario’s attention towards Chinese contemporary aesthetics is cutting edge and innovative. The last chapter of his book 20th Century Aesthetics: Towards A Theory of Feeling, entitled Aesthetics and Culture, discusses two representative Chinese aestheticians: Liang Shuming and Li Zehou.3

11In Mario’s stylish studio, we discussed many questions: the influence of German aesthetics, the history of Italian modern art, issues in Chinese and Japanese aesthetics. While conversing, he kept taking books out of the shelves, pointing at passages dealing with thinkers or concepts that he believed important. It is true that, today, Italian aesthetics is very influential: from the writings of Croce to those of Vattimo, Eco, and Agamben, Italian thinkers had and are having a significant impact on academic circles – and Mario himself is surely among those names. That day, we enjoyed a good chat until it was dark. Then, we had dinner with his wife in a small restaurant not far from his studio. We sat al fresco trying out different Italian dishes, while looking at people strolling around. We were truly enjoying this very unique Roman atmosphere.

  • 4 Perniola (2011).

12Mario’s 20th Century Aesthetics: Towards A Theory of Feeling was originally published in Italian in 2011.4 Two years later, the English translation was published by Bloomsbury Academic. He sent me the electronic edition as soon as he had it. While reading it, I immediately realized that this book should also have a Chinese version. As a prominent aesthetician and literary theorist in China with experience of studying at Columbia University, Prof. Yuan Peili from Shaanxi Normal University seemed to me the perfect choice as a translator and editor of the volume. It took Prof. Yuan a few years to finish the translation, which was published in 2017 by Fudan University Press. The book tackles the main questions of contemporary aesthetics. Its most significant contribution is a new structural framework for aesthetic interpretation. He suggests that Western contemporary aesthetics established its roots in four conceptual fields: life, form, knowledge, and action. The first two fields come from Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the others can be found in Hegel’s Aesthetics.

13Along with these four, Mario introduced two additional fields: feeling and culture. The former is a product of deconstructionism, the latter is reflected in non-European aesthetic thinking. Keeping in mind Jacob Burckhardt’s insight about the decline of Western culture, Mario regarded non-Western philosophies and aesthetics as a response to such a prophecy. He noticed that aesthetics experiences and customs of non-Western countries had developed in ways that differ from and challenge Western modernity. Against this background, Chinese contemporary aesthetics entered the Western context.

14Mario discussed Chinese contemporary aesthetics in a global comparative context. He considered Chinese approaches as one of the most important in non-Western thought, in particular with reference to Lian Shaming’s Confucian notion of ren (benevolence), which he took to have a unique global meaning.

  • 5 Perniola (2013: 144).

15Mario believed that Liang Shuming’s idea offered a way out of Burckhardt’s problem. It is interesting to notice that he brings to the table Western aesthetic notions to make sense of Liang Shuming’s idea of ren. A word very difficult to translate, according to Mario the meaning of ren is close to what Schiller had in mind when talking about aesthetic education, and Kant’s view of aesthetic disinterestedness, which are both oriented towards “the perfectibility of man and the obligation to pursue it”.5 Therefore, it is not too far from the “magnificence” as discussed in Thomas Aquinas’s works.

16In the vicinities of his studio, one could see a tight arrangement of old and colorful Mediterranean houses, whose roof where filled with antennas, and their inside filled with sounds and life. It is there where Mario wrote those passionate and thoughtful words. In his early years as a new graduate of the University of Turin, Mario established a life-longing bond with Gianni Vattimo and Umberto Eco. At the time a radical leftist, in the late 1960s, he also connected with the Situationist International movement founded by Guy Debord, whom he befriended. Later in his life, he became more tolerant and peaceful, which seems to be a common trait among European intellectuals. Though in his career he dedicated much of his time to research, in particular in the field of aesthetics, he still cared about humanity and society as he did when he was younger. He also founded Agalma, a journal that had a certain impact on European aesthetics. However, this is now all in the past.

17Dose he own a studio in heaven? What will it happen when meeting with God? Virginia Woolf once imagined the scene when a scholar faced the Day of Judgment and wrote:

  • 6 Woolf (1932).

I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards - their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble - the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading”.6

18Anyway, Mario Perniola needs no reward: he is still reading and writing in heaven.

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Perniola, M., 2006, 著;吕捷译, translated by Jie Lu, Beijing, The Commercial Press.

Perniola, M., 2011, L’estetica contemporanea: un panorama globale, Bologna, il Mulino.

Perniola, M., 2013, 20th Century Aesthetics: Towards A Theory of Feeling, translated by M. Verdicchio, New York, Bloomsbury.

Woolf, V., 1932-2003. The Common Readers. Second Series, 0301251h.html#e26.

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2 Perniola (2006: 1).

3 Perniola (2013).

4 Perniola (2011).

5 Perniola (2013: 144).

6 Woolf (1932).

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Zhou Xian, «Mario’s Studio»Rivista di estetica, 69 | 2018, 119-123.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Zhou Xian, «Mario’s Studio»Rivista di estetica [Online], 69 | 2018, online dal 01 mars 2019, consultato il 21 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Zhou Xian

Distinguished Professor, Nanjing University, Nanjing University, Nanjing, PR China, Room 814, Yifu Building, 22 Hankou Rd., Nanjing, 210093, Jiangsu, PR China – Zhouxian[at] Professor Zhou Xian obtained his B.A. (literature) from Nanjing Normal University, M.A. (aesthetics) from Peking University and Ph.D. (theater studies) from Nanjing University. He is the Chair Professor of Cheung Kong Scholar Program at the Art Institute of Nanjing University, founding Dean of the Institute for Advanced Studies, and the visiting professor at Soongsil University (1994), Duke University (2006), Universitéd'Artois (2010), Lingnan University (2016) and others. Author of over 100 articles with contributions to leading journals in Chinese and English. He teaches specialized courses on aesthetics, art theory and history, visual culture.

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Solamente il testo è utilizzabile con licenza CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Salvo diversa indicazione, per tutti agli altri elementi (illustrazioni, allegati importati) la copia non è autorizzata ("Tutti i diritti riservati").

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